Music from Finland brings our short survey of Nordic music over the past few weeks to a close. For most people, the country’s reputation for classical music is probably dominated by the name of Jean Sibelius
(1865–1957), so this blog will try and turn the spotlight on works by other composers deserving of air-time.
We start with music by a composer born some sixty years before Sibelius, namely Fredrik Pacius (1809–1891). Regarded as the father of Finnish music, Pacius was the composer of the first Finnish opera, The Hunt of King Charles, which had its premiere in Helsinki in 1852. At that time the language of the theatre and the opera house was Swedish, and accordingly the work has a Swedish text, although the opera is often performed in a Finnish translation.
The plot, set in 1671, centres on King Charles XI, ruler of Sweden and Finland, immediately before he reached an age to assume control of his kingdom. The music itself remains close to models such as Weber’s Freischütz and Oberon, and there are also hints of Beethoven, not least in the choice of the name Leonora for the heroine. I’ve chosen a bouncy extract from Act II – the Shanty and Chorus – that translates as A scurvy tar is such a man.
The Hunt of King Charles (8.225317-18)
The 21st century has brought a revival of interest in Melartin’s music and his importance in the field of Finnish music. Long-forgotten masterpieces, previously unrecorded, have again seen the light of day. One of the most significant of these is the tone poem Traumgesicht Op. 70, written in 1910. Alexander Siloti, one of the big names in the musical life of Russia’s St Petersburg, invited Melartin to provide and conduct one of his shorter works in the city. With nothing suitable available, Melartin set to work immediately on creating a new piece. Six weeks later, he completed Traumgesicht, writing to a friend in late August 1910:
“I have been working terribly hard. The night before last I completed Traumgesicht after 15 hours of work that day. Siloti lit such a fire under me by telegraphing and writing me every so often. When I had told him what I was doing, he wanted to see the beginning, and then he urged me to send ‘taglich mehr, taglich mehr’ [daily more, daily more]! He is very delighted. It is a terribly difficult piece, and such orchestral writing has never before been attempted in this country.”
Lasting some 15 minutes, I’ve selected the opening section of the work to demonstrate Melartin’s distinctive voice.
Merikanto was not only a composer but also a pianist, the organist of Johannes Church in Helsinki, an organ inspector, a conductor, a music critic and a teacher. Given that he was an active accompanist, it’s unsurprising that solo songs (he wrote about 150) form the best known and most significant portion of his output, many of which remain to this day among the all-time favourite Finnish songs of any genre. Here’s his Myrskylintu (Stormbird).
Sunrise Serenade (8.553747)
Magnus Lindberg (b. 1958) came to the immediate attention of the world of classical music when he announced his artistic credo as a budding composer in the late 1970s. Together with Finnish contemporaries such as Kaija Saariaho, referred to earlier, he formed a group with the name ‘Ears Open!’ (Korvat Auki!) in 1977 with the goal of reviving the spirit of modernism and innovation in Finnish musical culture. The differences between Lindberg’s piano works dating from that period and those composed in the early years of the 21st century can seem quite stark. Whereas his early works are based strictly on serial procedures, the emergence of a vibrant, more approachable style can be heard in works such as the two Etudes (2001/2004), which even share harmonic, textural and stylistic parallels with Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Messiaen.
Here are two short pieces to enable that comparison: first, the third of his Tre Pianostycke (1978), followed by the Etude No. 2 (2004).
Tre Pianostycke (8.570542)
Etude No. 2 (8.570542)
Scene with Cranes (8.570763)